University disability services often take an approach to supporting students that is rooted in the medical model. In their book Disability in Higher Education: A Social Justice Approach, Nancy J. Evans, Ellen M. Broido, Kirsten R. Brown, and Autumn K. Wilke imagine a future where student supports are rooted not in correcting "deficits," but instead in recognizing disability as a valued part of identity while addressing environmental and attitudinal barriers. Disability is not the only force shaping identity or experience, and the authors keep this in mind while focusing on the "contributions and potentials of students, staff, and faculty with disabilities" (xiii). The authors persuasively argue that university disability resource offices (DROs) and other student support offices should adopt a social justice ethos, which prioritizes education, the effects of privilege and oppression on how disability is experienced, and the role of identities that intersect with disability (72). These three facets of a social justice model of disability form the basis of a radical reimagining of access and support of various kinds on campus.

The authors are primarily writing for DRO employees and other student support staff who likely have some knowledge of relevant laws, but may not be deeply familiar with disability identity, disability histories, or disability studies. To that end, they devote part 1 of the book to giving a brief overview of various concepts, laws, models, and movement histories concerning disability in higher education. In keeping with their commitment to the diversity of disabled experiences, the authors include brief histories of D/deaf people (both Black and white), veterans, and independent living movement activists.

I would have liked to see a history of the self-advocacy movement, as students with intellectual and developmental disabilities are attending postsecondary education in record numbers (National Parent Center on Transition and Employment.). Also in part 1, the authors outline various models of disability. The "functional limitation" model, where accommodation is needed to overcome disadvantages caused by disability, was very familiar to me from my experiences as a disabled student, and I found it refreshing how the authors, who are all disabled, shared their own experiences in the book. They identify the goals of the social justice model as "elimination of ableism, redefinition of normal, respect and equity, and the development of a positive disability identity" (74). In the book's subsequent parts, the authors suggest some practices that can bring about these goals.

Evans et al. discuss the experiences of multiply-marginalized disabled students, such as disabled international students, disabled English language learners, and disabled parents, among others. As a multiply disabled queer woman, I was glad to see a variety of disabled experiences beyond white cisgender male wheelchair users discussed. Given this variety in the experience of disability, the authors argue that it is crucial for DRO's to collaborate with other campus support offices, such as multicultural affairs offices, faith centers, and LGBTQ+ offices. Not only would integrated support recognize intersecting identities in practice, but it would also save students, DRO's, and other supports a lot of hassle. It can be time and energy-consuming to have to travel across campus to visit several locations, or to have to explain one's access needs anew before every event. The authors devote a brief section to disabled faculty and staff on campuses, which is refreshing considering how often these groups are left out, but more research is definitely needed. I thought especially of Price et al.'s 2017 survey of faculty with mental health disabilities, in which many of the respondents reported that they were not aware of available accommodations or feared the associated stigma. A socially just approach ought to decrease stigma and increase awareness of supports for faculty and staff as well as students.

Universal design is an important feature in a socially just classroom or other university space. While the authors acknowledge that universal design does not totally fit everyone (295), they make a compelling case for design of both physical space and course instruction, in which allowances for different access needs and learning styles are built into the course rather than viewed as separate. I appreciated that the authors treated instructional approaches, particularly in specialized fields like art and STEM, as equally important to physical modifications in core classes. Their recommendations in the arts, such as incorporating games, focusing on different senses or learning styles for different activities, and allowing students more freedom on assignments struck me as applicable to K-12 education as well, where I recall opting out of art when drawing was not accessible to me. Jay Dolmage notes that universal design can become "checklisted", which reduces it to a series of steps rather than a changing and ongoing process (Dolmage). Evans et al.'s suggestions at times appear in list form, but they take care to mention the necessity of student input, which centers student needs.

The final part of the book deals with how student support professionals can apply social justice and disability-affirming principles in their work. The authors note especially that whether conscious or not, ableist attitudes from professionals can make it difficult for students to seek and receive support (262). A more socially just accommodations process centers students' own perception of their experiences, identities, and previous accommodations (365). One issue I wish would have been given more attention is how DRO's and other support offices can realistically fund some of the larger suggestions, like recruiting a diverse staff and soliciting more and better research that centers disabled experiences.

At my college, the DRO was extremely underfunded and ran for several months with a full-time staff of two people. Much as those people wanted to help everyone, there wasn't sufficient money or staff to serve every student's basic needs, let alone take a holistic approach or inquire about other needs not being met. The key in situations like that may be to build relationships with other support offices and thus present a united front when any aspect of student diversity and inclusion is threatened. Campuswide collaboration that is equitable and not tokenizing will take time, and it may not be financially feasible in all cases.

Despite wanting to see a few topics addressed in more detail, I found Disability in Higher Education: A Social Justice Approach to be a very welcome and timely addition to the otherwise sparse literature on disability in higher education. With the exception of the discussion of critical theory and critical realism in chapter 2, neither of which I had encountered previously, the prose was largely accessible to me, an independent scholar without a graduate degree, and the summary tables were an especially clever way to distill pages of text into a few key ideas and suggestions. Busy professionals may not have the time or ability to read a whole chapter, but they can likely read a two-page table of universal design principles and suggestions. The authors also take care to include a large amount, if not all of, the current research on disability in higher education, of particular benefit to researchers of this topic. They have provided some crucial ideas and suggestions for how administrators and others across campuses can work together to build a more accessible and more just educational experience.

Works Cited

  • Dolmage, Jay. "Universal Design: Places to Start." Disability Studies Quarterly, vol. 35, no. 2, 2015.
  • National Parent Center on Transition and Employment. "Inclusive Postsecondary Opportunities for Students with Intellectual Disabilities." Inclusive Postsecondary Opportunities for Students with Intellectual Disabilities - PACER's National Parent Center on Transition and Employment, PACER Center, Inc., 2019,
  • Price, Margaret, et al. "Disclosure of Mental Disability by College and University Faculty: The Negotiation of Accommodations, Supports, and Barriers." Disability Studies Quarterly, vol. 37, no. 2, 2017.
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